Rubin: Detroit’s most unlikely tourist attraction
Fly in from Australia. See the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State building and “Phantom of the Opera.”
Next stop: a pawn shop in Detroit.
Micah and Hannah Chiang, a veterinarian and chemical engineering teacher from Perth, had one destination on their itinerary when they veered off to Michigan to visit family — American Jewelry & Loan, at the scenic intersection of Greenfield Road and the Lodge.
Frankenmuth, Mackinac Island, The Henry Ford ... and an oversized pawn shop in a former bowling alley near a motel whose online reviews discuss roaches and bedbugs. You won’t see American Jewelry in a Pure Detroit commercial, but maybe you should.
For 162 episodes on truTV, the shop has been the setting for a reality show called “Hardcore Pawn,” in which store founder Les Gold and his two kids make deals with customers, bicker with one another, and occasionally have a bouncer the size of an armored truck escort an unhappy patron to the parking lot.
Come to find out the show is all the rage in Australia, where Hannah Chiang said Thursday that she likes to “see the drama.”
And Italy, where Seth Gold brought 1,000 promotional trinkets to an appearance in Milan and ran out.
And Spain, where according to a Google alert that recently flashed across Les’ screen, “Hardcore Pawn” had climbed to No. 1.
And even South Africa, where Les’ wife turned on the television in their Johannesburg hotel room early last week and heard her husband’s voice.
“I thought you were talking to me,” she told him. Come to find out, he’s practically been talking to the United Nations.
The show’s ninth season ended in April with an episode filmed in March. The Golds don’t know whether they’re being renewed and might not care to be. Speaking cagily, like the professional negotiator he is, Les said only that “people have approached us about other things.”
But reruns live forever and air endlessly, sometimes for hours at a time, and tourists come looking for T-shirts, autographs and maybe a bargain on a diamond ring.
The Chiangs posed for pictures with Les and Seth — no charge — moments after a couple from Orlando, Florida, did the same. Moments after that, Les was signing an 8-by-10 for some visitors from Toronto.
“It’s the most amazing thing,” said Les, “that I could ever not expect.”
He was essentially raised in his grandfather’s Michigan Avenue pawn shop, which in the way of the new, hip, near-downtown Detroit is now a restaurant called Gold Cash Gold.
He founded American Jewelry in Oak Park in 1978, then bought the former North Lanes 15 years later.
Father and son
At 65, with his familiar heavy gold chain and diamond earring, he oversees a staff of 50 that does not currently include his daughter, Ashley Broad.
Her sparring with Seth, 34, has been a familiar part of “Hardcore Pawn” since its debut in 2010. For now, Les said, she’s off doing her unspecified thing.
Customers seem happy enough with just father and son. At least one of them is usually there, Seth said, but for those times when the store is Gold-free (if never gold-free), there are life-size cardboard cutouts to pose with.
The store has also installed a camera kiosk that takes and emails snapshots, and one of those racks of tourism brochures you see in hotel lobbies.
Hundreds of tourists
A typical day, Les said, will involve hundreds of tourists and 100 or more photos – and that’s not counting the days the buses roll in.
Not long ago, an Australian arrived with his girlfriend, bought an engagement ring, dropped to one knee and proposed.
“I was watching last night,” a man once told Seth, “and I just decided to drive up.”
“Where’d you come from?” Seth asked.
The Thursday morning Floridians, Richard and Michelle Shark, had other business in the area.
Richard’s mother and sister live in Southgate. On his last trip, he had stopped by American Jewelry & Loan on his own.
“I have to go, too,” Michelle said, so there they were.
Like a lot of visitors, she was hoping to see somebody get loud and get bounced. It’s sort of like going to a car race and rooting for the walls.
“TV needs things to be exciting,” Seth said, which is to say the rowdiness isn’t as commonplace as it appears on the air. Michelle, 64, seemed ecstatic anyway.
Michelle Grinnell of Travel Michigan is not surprised, either at Michelle Shark’s presence or her obvious enjoyment.
“We know television and movies drive tourism,” Grinnell said.
Last month, for instance, the Grand Hotel on Mackinac hosted its 25th annual “Somewhere in Time” weekend, and the Detroit Convention and Visitors Bureau fields frequent requests for directions to Eminem’s house in “8 Mile.”
“It’s great to hear they’re embracing visitors” at American Jewelry, Grinnell said. “We’ll have to get hold of them and put our Michigan travel guide in that rack.”
Visitors to the pawn shop not only make purchases, the Golds said, but they also bring gifts: native wines, boomerangs and endless jars of Vegemite, the peculiar Australian yeasty dark brown food paste that Seth still refuses to try.
It’s a lot of adoration for people in a line of work they’re proud of, and whose image they have upgraded, but that is not always exactly canonized.
“We have to stay grounded,” Les said, even as the actors who dub their voices in Spanish or Italian ask for autographs.
There are 5,000 pawned televisions in the back room, waiting for their owners. There are deals to be made, like the one for Jack Kevorkian’s rusty VW suicide van.
Les flipped a coin with the owner: Tails he’d pay $20,000, heads he’d double it. The gold dollar fell his way, and he ultimately sold the van to someone from another reality show for $32,500.
“Eventually,” Les said, “the cameras are going to be gone.” The tourists will find a new show to follow, and what’s left of the T-shirts will get dusty.
He’ll still have a rack of fur coats, cheap.
Make him an offer.